How Government Employees Can Maximize Travel Rewards Within the Joint Travel Regulations
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When it comes to taxpayer-funded travel for Department of Defense civilian employees and Uniformed Service members, everything must comply with the rules set forth in a very large, intimidating and all-encompassing publication known as the Joint Travel Regulations (JTR). Rather than have you skim all 1,008 pages of the 10 chapters and appendices, today I’ll share my nine years of experience as a Naval officer traveling within the rules to tell you how to legally maximize your travel rewards from official US government travel.
Warning: A very common reason civilian employees and uniformed members of all ranks and levels (i.e., Secretary Tom Price) get in trouble is breaking government travel regulations or simply giving the appearance of being a poor steward of the US taxpayer dollar. The information I share below was corroborated with a veteran Defense Travel System Approving Official who is responsible for approving all travel requests and enforcing all JTR rules at the unit level. If ever in doubt while on official travel, ask your Approving Official before taking action, and get approval in writing. Even when your actions are legal, consider them from the public’s perspective, as you don’t want to be on the news.
First of all, government regulations require use of your Government Travel Charge Card for airfare, car rentals and lodging. While you’re unfortunately not able to earn points on those expenses, ensure that the most beneficial rewards program is associated with each part of your travel in the Defense Travel Service (DTS) website. These should change on every authorization to match your means of travel.
Beyond that, the best travel advice I can give you as a Federal government employee or Uniformed Service member is to become familiar with the JTR. Know where to find the rules for recurring and common travel and Government Travel Charge Card (GTCC) situations. Not all Approving Officials are created equal, and many operate from experience and memory rather than based on the most updated publications.
Given my propensity for maximizing all official travel (while staying legal), I routinely found myself respectfully butting heads with my AOs. Nothing worked better to quickly resolve my case than to walk in the office with the paragraph of the JTR that said I could do what I was proposing to do, while making sure I didn’t come across as a know-it-all. The Defense Travel Management Office Travel Regulations webpage is a wonderful resource to bookmark. Everything you need to build your own knowledge and ensure you stay legal is on that site, including updated changes to the JTR and travel policy.
Remember the JTR is essentially a book journaling years of trial and error. Whenever someone finds a loophole, an update is written, often in vague wording with poor explanations. Even with 1,000+ pages, many decisions are still left to the judgement of your AO. The more you know and can directly cite back to a source publication, the better your chances are at maximizing your official travel.
The majority of official commercial air travel is booked according to the General Services Administration (GSA) City Pair Program (CPP). These are pre-competed, contractual binding airfares that Federal employees and Uniformed Service members book through the Defense Travel System (DTS) website in order to fly commercially on official travel. In FY ’18, 7,257 domestic markets and 1,950 international markets are accounted for in the CPP, representing 93% of official government travel that will be booked through the City Pair Program.
What does the CPP mean for your travel? If your route is covered by the CPP, you have no choice of carrier or booking class. The Fly America Act also means that under the City Pair Program your carrier will be a domestic US airline with a few codeshare booking exceptions (i.e., in 2016 Emirates carried government passengers to Milan and Bahrain because codeshare partner JetBlue bid on and won the city pair). This means that unless you’re flying a route that isn’t serviced by an American carrier, your chance of enjoying an Etihad, Lufthansa or Singapore economy experience is practically 0%.
As far as frequent flyer programs go, you’re entitled to personally collect all miles and enjoy elite benefits on government-funded travel. The JTR says, “A traveler on official business may keep promotional material, including frequent traveler benefits, for personal use (e.g., points, miles, upgrades, or access to carrier clubs/facilities).” You cannot, however, use your own miles to book official travel and then submit for reimbursement (I tried).
With those ground rules set — and the politics and nonsensicalness in some of the laws set aside — how should you maximize your flights?
Don’t Count on Business Class — If you think booking a premium class (premium economy/business/first) is a possibility, I invite you to read the 13-page Premium Class Transportation Checklist and then realize that there’s 99.99% chance it isn’t going to happen for you.
Look for Different Fare Classes in DTS — When you’re scrolling through DTS looking at flight options, the system displays the fare class of your ticket right in the search results. Find your fare code in the search results, like in the screenshot below:
In this instance, you have a YCA fare, which is a full-fare economy ticket specific to the government. You can find all the fare rules for these tickets by clicking the link to the right of the fare code. Full-fare Y tickets typically earn a lot of mileage (when crediting to partners); carry no change and cancellation fees; and, depending on the airline, are easily upgradeable, sometimes even without requiring a co-pay. Try to always find the full Y fares to take advantage of partner earnings, the lack of cancellation fees and other potential benefits.
Credit to Partners — Your fare class doesn’t dictate how many miles you’ll earn with the legacy US carriers; that’s determined by the cost of the ticket. With the City Pair Program, tickets can be cheap CONUS (Continental United Statues) so you won’t earn many redeemable miles. Instead, look at crediting flights to partner programs, where full Y should earn you 100% of the miles flown and even 100% elite-qualifying miles.
Upgrade Government Fares — Call the airline and ask about the options for upgrading or using upgrade certificates on your specific intended fare. For the above AA fare, I called the Executive Platinum desk to ask about upgrade options. I was told it was eligible to receive complimentary status upgrades but wasn’t upgradeable with miles unless I had Executive Platinum or Concierge Key status, and that I couldn’t apply 500-mile certificates or a System Wide Upgrade. On United, in my experience government fares on international tickets were treated as normal, full Y fare tickets, and I often upgraded CONUS to Tokyo flights with no co-pay. I also regularly applied Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs) to Tokyo – Guam flights.
Look for IRROPS Opportunities — Before booking official travel, I’d always give the weather at my origin, destination and any possible connecting cities a glance. If I saw any chance of bad weather, I’d book flights that could experience a delay. While it sounds crazy at face value, once irregular operations (IRROPS) hit an airport and you’re on a full Y (or almost any government) fare ticket, you can tell an airline agent to do almost anything and go almost anywhere you want.
In winter, I always connected through Chicago en route to Tokyo so there’d be a solid chance my connection would get delayed. I could then call (most often) United and ask to be put on Star Alliance partner ANA from Washington Dulles. I could then easily upgrade a full Y fare on ANA if there was space, or simply enjoy a much more comfortable transpacific economy flight.
Ticket Your Itinerary — The way most official travel works, your reservation is built but not actually ticketed by the TMC (transportation management company) until three days before travel. I found this incredibly annoying, as on foreign carriers you couldn’t select your seat, and domestically you couldn’t jockey for an upgrade or really do much to the reservation, until you had an electronic ticket.
Call your TMC after your AO approves your travel and have them go ahead and ticket your travel, which isn’t against any JTR rules. Depending on your location, this could involve some social engineering with your AO and TMC office, just because it’s outside of how they normally operate. In Japan, the TMC staff on base knew me well and were very appreciative of hot coffee and postcards from my trips.
Maximize Hotel Stays
Maximize (But Don’t Exceed) Lodging Per Diem — Booking up to your maximum per diem is no longer an easy process. The relatively new Integrated Lodging Pilot Program (ILPP) is now forcing travelers to book lodging through DTS at select sites, including on-base government hotels and lodging. If an ILPP site doesn’t have available government lodging, you’ll be referred to a new group of rooms called “DoD Preferred,” with a rate that’s reduced from the max lodging per diem amount. If you skip DoD Preferred, your lodging reimbursement will be limited to that cost and not the max per diem rate. The program is still in the early stages and I highly recommend you speak with your AO on how your local unit is handling ILPP.
Because hotel programs award points based on spend, you want to spend as much as possible without any money coming out of your pocket. If you’re staying CONUS, make sure you have a tax-exempt letter, and if traveling overseas, talk to your AO about whether they’re including taxes or not in the per diem rate.
Negotiate Rates (and Include Breakfast) — While you don’t have the authority to contract or negotiate rates on behalf of the US government, you can certainly negotiate with a property as a private citizen, knowing you have a price cap in mind. With ILPP now in place, this typically works best for OCONUS (Outside Continental United States) travel.
Some cities I visited in Asia had Hyatt properties that were way more than per diem (and now aren’t a part of ILPP). I of course wanted to enjoy my (then) Diamond status and lounge access. I often called the property in questions and was able to negotiate down to the per diem rate to be able to stay at the Hyatt. I asked for the rooms manager, explained the situation, said I’d most likely be a repeat customer on business and loved Hyatt. I don’t recall a time I was unsuccessful.
Make sure when you do negotiate room rates that you get breakfast included and it doesn’t show on your bill. If your AO sees breakfast as a separate line item, they should only award your proportional per diem because the government paid for your breakfast with your hotel room and isn’t then going to award you full per diem for three meals. This can be a significant hit to your per diem, so don’t ever turn in a room bill that has breakfast as a separate line item.
Be Your Office’s Meeting Planner — If you have a group of coworkers headed to a conference of large meeting and everyone needs hotels, volunteer to take the stress away from everyone and organize the hotel rooms. Once you make a certain threshold, with certain hotel chains you can then qualify for earning reward points and elite night stay credits based on booking a block of rooms. Your coworkers think you’re a star and so nice, and meanwhile you’re racking up free hotel nights and elite status. Look at SPG Pro and Marriott’s Rewarding Events.
In 2015, my office went to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to open a new government contract. We ended up with approximately 40 room nights, plus two co-workers would live at the hotel for months. I negotiated rates down to a fantastic deal for the government — far below per diem — and set up my SPG Pro account where for two years I earned SPG points off my coworkers’ stays at the property, even long after I left that job. My office also knew I always picked up the dinner tab on my rewards-earning card, and they paid me cash.
Leave In Conjunction With TDY
If you haven’t read Chapter 3, Part E of the JTR, this should be your bedtime reading. Leave In Conjunction With Official Travel (LICWOT) allows you to essentially to tag on vacation days to an official temporary duty assignment (TDY) while still having the government pay for your transportation to and from the TDY location. If you’re stationed in Washington, D.C. and have a TDY assignment to Europe, as soon as your duties are done you can continue to stay in Europe and the government will still furnish your flight back home. Highlights of LICWOT:
- Your per diem stops the day you are done with official duty but resumes for your travel day back from the TDY location.
- You’re liable for any difference in airfare encountered because of your return date changes.
- You’re responsible for any travel costs from your TDY location to your leave destination.
When I did LICWOT, I set up my TDY trip within DTS as if there was no planned leave. This set the baseline for what I would be reimbursed — both for the plane ticket and for per diem. I then called the Transportation Management Contractor (TMC), which was SATO Travel for the Navy, and had them change the flights, trying to find days where I wouldn’t be charged extra compared to if I had taken no leave. Working directly with the TMC on the itinerary was an AO decision, as many don’t want you talking to them. I found having the ability to talk to SATO (Wagonlit Carlson is also popular) essential given all the things I accomplished in my JTR travel days.
Traveling under the JTR and navigating DTS is equivalent to experiencing work in a foreign language for your first few trips. Once you get to know the basics and build a relationship with your travel AO, you should begin to develop a system for maximizing the flights on your most regular routes and hotels at your regular destinations. Above all else, ensure you’re not breaking any rules and not giving the appearance of lavish travel at the tax payers expense.
How do you maximize your official government travel?
Featured image by Kevin Voelker Photography via Getty Images.
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